15 killed in Iraqi capital as assailants fire live rounds

BAGHDAD (AP) – Gunmen in cars opened fire on Friday in Baghdad’s Khilani Square. leaving at least 15 people dead and 60 wounded, Iraqi security and medical officials said. At least two of the dead were policemen.

Protesters fearing for their lives ran from the plaza to nearby Tahrir Square and mosques to take cover. It wasn’t immediately clear who did the shooting.

The attack came as anti-government demonstrators occupied parts of Jumhuriya, Sinak and Ahar bridges in a standoff with security forces.

All the bridges lead to or near the heavily-fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government.

“We are under live fire now with electric power cut, the wounded and martyrs are here and the bullets were fired in Sinak Bridge,” said one protester, who did not give their name for fear of retaliation.

Anti-government protesters gather near barriers set up by security forces to close Rasheed Street during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq. PHOTO: AP

The attack came a day after a string of suspicious stabbing incidents targeting demonstrators left at least 13 wounded in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Iraq’s leaderless protest movement.

Those attacks by unknown perpetrators occurred as demonstrators supporting political parties and Iran-backed militias withdrew from the Square.

The incidents on Thursday fuelled paranoia among protesters, who immediately implemented self security measures to uncover saboteurs within the square.

At least 400 people have died since the leaderless uprising shook Iraq on October 1, with thousands of Iraqis taking to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite southern Iraq decrying corruption, poor services, lack of jobs and calling for an end to the political system that was imposed after the 2003 US invasion.

Security forces dispersed crowds with live fire, tear gas and sonic bombs, leading to fatalities. Pressure from the protests, now in its third month, lead to the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi last week following al-Sistani calling for parliament to withdraw its support for his government.

Earlier, Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority called for the formation of a new government within the allotted deadline, and without foreign interference, as the clock ticks down on lawmakers to select a new premier following the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi last week.

Thousands of anti-government protesters from across southern Iraq had joined demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the protest movement in the capital, hours after the sermon, according to security officials.

“We hope the head of the new government and its members are chosen within the constitutional deadline and according to the aspirations of the people and away from outside influence,” the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said in his weekly Friday sermon in the holy city of Najaf. The sermon is always delivered by a representative.

He added that the Shiite religious establishment would not take part in the government formation process.

Parliament had 15 days since his stepping down was formally recognised by lawmakers last Sunday to name a new nominee, as per the constitution.